Published: 11/11/2015 at 04:15 AM
newspaper section: News


Compassion must guide policy on Islam


          The news that ultra-nationalist Buddhists want to make Buddhism Thailand's state religion, partly to protect it from perceived threats from Islam, has hit international headlines. One reason is that some of the proponents' ideas appear to be ideologically linked to the Patriotic Association of Myanmar, which has successfully advocated eugenics laws, including a population control law and a law for Buddhist women to seek permission before marrying a non-Buddhist.

          Both these ""race and religion"" laws negatively impact women's rights, as pointed out by the UN Human Rights Council, which is ironic as one of the charges against fundamentalist Islam is inequality of opportunity for genders. Thus, Buddhist ultranationalism appears to be aping aspects of fundamentalist Islam.

          One of the concerns shared by both Myanmar and Thai Buddhist ultra-nationalists is that Muslims are having more children than Buddhists. This is true in Thailand, with the total fertility rate (TFR) for Buddhist women being lower. However, while religion plays a role, the main factors in reducing TFR are the mother's education and opportunities for gainful employment. Thus Thailand must bear some responsibility as the state education system in the deep South is the worst nationwide.

          Unfortunately, the ghettoisation of Myanmar's Rakhine State Muslims means it is difficult to assess their TFR and compare it to the national rate of just over replacement, as ghettoisation reduces opportunities for education and self-betterment, in addition to access to contraception. Thus, Myanmar is worsening the very situation the ultra-nationalists dread most.

          Certainly, both Thai and Myanmar Buddhists are right to fear Islamic fundamentalism, with the predations of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria revealing a hatred which is genocidal in its beheadings of civilians and massacres of prisoners of war, debased in its forced slavery and rape of girls and women and barbaric in its intentional destruction of historically significant monuments.

          Yet, there is nothing that Islamic fundamentalists want more than to export this mindset. They have sought unsuccessfully to further radicalise insurgents in Thailand's deep South. But unless the deep South insurgency is provoked by Buddhist ultra-nationalism, the insurgency is unlikely to become a conventional civil war.

          Unlike in Sri Lanka, where a Buddhist majority faced an entrenched paramilitary organisation, the insurgents do not hold territory. Thus, the situation requires a hi-tech counter-insurgency operation designed to target the hardcore and win the hearts and minds of the middle ground. The aim is to minimise the number of recruits available to the insurgent groups. As such, injecting Buddhist ultra-nationalism into the mix is to hand insurgents an additional recruitment vector.

          Indeed, the winning formula is available to the Thai military. In the 19th century, Pattani was a relatively faithful vassal of Siam in exchange for a degree of autonomy. It was only in the late 19th century that Siam, following Western colonial models, directly took over the region's financial affairs, and it was only in 1923 the deep South rose in rebellion in reaction to the 1921 Compulsory Primary Education Act which was feared would supplant the Koranic schools and the role of the Malay language. Further disturbances in the 1930's and 1940's were tied to ""Thaification"" which was tied to Buddhism.

          Ever since the 1920s, the nature of the education received by Thai Malays and the language issue have plagued relations between Buddhists and Muslims. However, Thailand cannot simply remove oversight of the education system as it can be exploited to radicalise populations. Moreover, while many Thai Buddhists feel the Pattani Malays are ""less Thai"" than themselves, the state has a duty to bring socio-economic development and educational opportunities to the region to provide living evidence that Buddhism is a formula for different peoples to exist together in harmony.

          The appropriate policy towards religions is already known to Buddhists. The Buddhist Emperor Ashoka, who ruled India over 2,000 years ago, realised that tolerance and promotion of all religions is the correct path. The Ministry of Culture spends spends hundreds of millions of baht promoting different religions, with Buddhism claiming the lion's share of funds and statebacked support for its religious festivals.

          The deep South is Thailand's ultimate test of its claim to be a civilised, cosmopolitan nation. It is a test which can only be won by making concessions born from compassion in terms of language and education policies, not by escalating the causes of conflict based on the unseemly desire for dominance over others, paranoia bred by a lack of equanimity and an inability to learn and internalise from history.
          John Draper is project officer, Isan Culture Maintenance and Revitalisation Programme (ICMRP),

          College of Local Administration (COLA), Khon Kaen University. Peerasit Kamnuansilpa, Phd, is founder and former dean of the College of Local Administration, Khon Kaen University.